Take a Dumpling Crawl Through New York City’s Chinatown
The narrow streets of Chinatown are quieter than usual. While memes float around about how nature has been “healing” in New York City, traffic has been slow to return to Chinatown, and slower still to restaurants. It’s a series of unfortunate events: first, as early as January and February 2020, mom-and-pop businesses, which make up the majority in Chinatown, saw a decline in business as locals began to shelter in place, a decline that was only exacerbated when lockdown orders were officially put into place in March. The Lower Manhattan workers and university students who relied on Chinatown meals vanished, as did tourists.
“Chinatown was a ghost town,” says Grace Young, a James Beard Award-winning cookbook author who has become a voice for mom-and-pop Chinese restaurants around the country. “It looked like an empty Hollywood set of Chinatown. You wouldn’t even see three people on the sidewalk.”
Next, outdoor dining began in New York City, but sidewalk space was limited in Chinatown, creating great competition among the many restaurants located on a single, tiny street. By fall, indoor dining was allowed at reduced capacity, but many restaurants, already small to begin with, could not earn enough from indoor diners to make up for what had been lost. As warmer weather and vaccine rollout led to a wave of optimism in New York generally, a rise in anti-Asian hate crimes caused locals to live in heightened caution, especially at night, during the very time business should be rebounding.
The numbers speak for themselves. Golden Unicorn reported recently that it is still only earning 10 to 20 percent of its pre-pandemic revenues, starkly low compared to other restaurateurs outside of Chinatown who have said they are up to 80 percent or more of their pre-pandemic sales. The New York Times reported recently that at least 17 restaurants and 139 ground-floor stores in Chinatown have permanently closed. Recently, Jing Fong, previously the largest restaurant in Chinatown, made headlines when it announced it was closing its iconic dining room as a result of losing 85 percent of its sales year-over-year.
“These older businesses are the heart and soul of Chinatown. They’ve been pillars of the community. So when we lose them, they’re irreplaceable. Right now, with the rise in anti-Asian hate crime, I think the best way to combat it is with love–love in the form of showing up to Chinatown,” says Young. “Chinatown cannot rebound on its own. We have to help Chinatown or nothing is going to happen. If these businesses continue to just scrape along, they have to close at a certain point. The ones that are remaining right now are warriors.”